All Your Business Needs is 1000 True Fans?

1000 “True Fans” is all you need for your business.

Maybe, maybe not, more insights on this article will tell.

How can you tell which leads will end up as customers? Which leads will be your best customers?

In an article written by WIRED founder, Kevin Kelly, titled “1000 True Fans” He says: “A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living”.

He continued that, “A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up”.

“They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.”

Kelly also explained that “you don’t need to become famous. If you can get just 1,000 people to spend $100 dollars a year, you can earn a very reasonable living.”

Think it’s a bit unrealistic? Well, it might well be, as the idea has sparked some backlash about its feasibility.

However, the ideas seemed to vividly capture the imagination of artists and entrepreneurs, to the point that Tim Ferriss requested that Kelly updated his original essay for the 2016 book Tools of Titans.

Basically, the concept of 1000 True Fans is simple; identify your best customers and get them to continue buying from you.

In this article, we’ll examine:

  • the love and success stories behind the 1000 True Fans idea

  • Scrutinize the (totally reasonable) criticisms of the concept

  • Show you precise, actionable ways you can utilize the concept of 1000 True Fans for your business growth, even if you might not reach 1000 people in literal terms.

Understandably, some people are strong proponents of the idea of 1000 True Fans, as the idea has taken the internet by storm.

Not long after the 2008 essay was published, legendary marketer Seth Godin shared it on his blog. He opined that “some people will read this and immediately understand. Others will read it and start waffling over the meaning of “true.” My expansion: you need to alter what you do and how you do it so that 1000 true fans is sufficient to make you very happy.”

Likewise, Tim Ferriss was so in love with the idea that he included an updated version of the essay in his wildly popular Tools of Titans.

Ramit Sethi of IWT and GrowthLab in the same vein shares actual numbers, showing that his top 1,000 customers are more engaged and bring in way more business than everyone else.

Renowned tech blogger Ben Thompson attributes 1,000 True Fans as the inspiration behind the membership program of his website, which costs precisely $100 per year.

Across industries and business strata, people have discovered that top customers are incredibly valuable to a business.

For mobile apps, AdWeek reported that whales account for about 70% of in-app purchases despite the fact that they are only 5% of users.

In an interview, Drew Sanocki, the CMO of the e-commerce business Karmaloop, argued that repeat customers were critical drivers of Karmaloops turnaround from near-bankruptcy. He also argued that estranging top customers, or “whales,” was a major reason for Karmaloop’s trouble in the first place.

Finally, Drew was forced to chase down a completely new group of True Fans—because the previous group was so anguished.

In his words, “There was just a lot of hatred out there towards the brand…what we did have more success in was just acquiring an all-new whale cohort. Fishing in another pond, and trying to nurture those people from scratch.

The learning from all these is that True Fans are extremely valuable to business success. Having them can help you flourish, and upsetting them might make you suffer.

True Fans help small creators thrive

true fans

Agreed, Kevin Kelly’s original True Fans argument was targeted at artists and other creators. In creative fields, the idea has come to life via crowdfunding as the internet allow creators to connect with their fans directly.

Ever since the original essay in 2008, crowd-funding platform, Patreon has become the epitome of “True Fans” for creators and Kelly even made mention of it in his 2016 update.

As a platform, Patreon gives artists, musicians, and other content creators the ability to raise funds directly from their fans. Since the platform allows people to support work that they love, this gives creators the financial means to create work that typically would be hard to make a living from.

The Patreon page for “Wait But Why”

It also incentivizes creators or artists to do more for their top fans; receiving larger amounts of donations and keeping “patrons” around is a very important part of raising money on Patreon.

There are a variety of people who live off Patreon. Below are 2 brief examples:

Tim Urban

He is the owner of the well-known blog “Wait But Why.” Despite the fact that blogs can be difficult to monetize, he rakes in $12,000/month through Patreon, and the site is so well known that he (Urban) was offered the chance to do a rare Deep dive interview with Tesla owner Elon Musk.

Kina Grannis

He is a singer who launched her music career after she won the 2008 Doritos Crash the Super Bowl contest. Along with her victory was a deal with Interscope Records, but Grannis discovered quickly that she didn’t care to be signed under a record label. With her profile of over 2000 supporters on Patreon, she is able to be a full-time independent artist.

The capability to get paid by your fans and best customers is very crucial, and the ability to distinguish and cater to those fans is very key in growing your business.

But then, how do you get 1,000 True Fans? You may ask, Is the theory really all it’s talked up to be?

The criticisms of the 1000 True Fans Theory

It is no surprise that the 1,000 True Fans idea has sparked as many critics as it has fans. Like Seth Godin states, most people “immediately understand” the importance of the idea, there are also a number of completely valid criticisms.

The most important? Well, it’s that a “True Fan” isn’t exactly easy to come across.

Taking another look at the definition of a True Fan: A True Fan is described as someone who will purchase ANYTHING and EVERYTHING you produce.

They will take a 200-mile drive to see you sing. They will purchase the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they already possess the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions come up. They attend your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat.

They can’t wait till you issue your next work. These are true fans.

Yes, it’s a pretty demanding definition.

There are many artists, creators, and products that you may love, but just loving the product is not enough to be regarded as a “True Fan.” If you’ve never followed someone on tour, don’t really buy merch, and have fluctuating interest (though strong) over time, you’re not a true fan in this case.

In any given group of fans, what percentage do you reckon are True Fans? It’s got to be pretty small.

This is the most common criticism of the 1000 True Fans concept. In theory, a creator could live off “only” 1,000 dedicated people. But in reality, finding 1,000 people who are dedicated enough to support you in such manner means reaching a much, much wider total audience.

Even in the examples we’ve given, you see that the first step to reaching a small audience is reaching a massive one:

Kina Grannis, a musician has 1.2 million YouTube subscribers, but only about 2,200 Patreon supporters.

TierZoo has more than 15,000,000 YouTube view, but only 590 supporters on Patreon.

Ramit Sethi’s top 1,000 customers spend more, but he reaches an email list of several hundred thousand people and has tens of thousands of total customers.

The general idea of 1000 True Fans is that you don’t necessarily need to be famous to be successful business-wise. But practically, for you to get to 1000 true fans, you do need to become quite famous.

Science fiction writer John Scalzi added to this argument in a very logical response to Kelly’s writing by saying that, “The available universe of ‘true fans’ is not the entire US (or the entire Internet), but the subset of those who are willing/able to spend a significant sum of money on a single creative person.”

As mentioned earlier, you’ve probably never followed someone on tour and don’t buy merch. You’ll see an artist if they come to your city, and will support at best two creators with small donations on Patreon. That’s pretty much it.

Most people are like this. People might spend a little to support work they like, of course not everyone will and not everyone will spend a lot.

Another criticism of 1000 True Fans from Robert Rich states “A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions”.

Adding that he has “a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective, I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them. If we play to the same 1000 people and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black.

Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans, to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable.”

What Rich’s argument implies is that when you depend on True Fans, you need to keep appealing to those True Fans even if your creative ambitions lie elsewhere or happen to change.

Nonetheless, the same principle can apply to other businesses.

Karmaloop estranged its “whales,” or in this case, “True Fans,” and almost went bankrupt. Recovering from their missteps required building a completely new set of True Fans, as the ones they had lost were probably never going to return.

These criticisms of the realistic application of 1,000 True Fans are indeed very challenging. Alternatively, it can be argued, that they can be overcome.

For instance, let’s say you don’t exactly focus on having 1,000 True Fans, the principle of focusing on your best, most loyal customers can have a really strong impact on your business.

The value of focusing on True Fans

Recently, Apple was deeply criticized for losing its innovation edge. As most believe, the days of revolutionizing industries are far gone for Apple.

They’re not going to revolutionize music the way they did with the iPod and iTunes. Or change the way we see phones and computing forever with the iPhone. Or change the face of computing again as they did with the IPad.

Add in Apple’s famous “closed network,” and the fact that you need a dongle to use Apple devices with devices from any other company, and you can see why so many people are averse to Apple.

Well, Ben Thompson is definitely not one of them. In an article titled Apple’s Middle Age, Thompson opines that Apple is actually pursuing the exactly correct strategy. No longer in its daring, turbulent early days, Apple doesn’t need to continuously innovate in the manner that they used to.

There’s more value for Apple in providing value to their existing users.

As Apple CEO Tim Cook once stated, and Thompson uses as support: “We’re not releasing a user number, because we think that the proper way to look at it is to look at active devices.”

What this implies, Apple focus is on making more products for their existing customers. Apple Music, HomePod, AirPods, Apple TV, and Apple Watches are all designed to sell more to current users.

To True Fans

In this case, we have a lesson, which can be applied to many types of companies. You can design your business to appeal to True Fans by focusing on repeat business because those most likely to buy from you are already happy customers.

Focusing on serving True Fans doesn’t necessarily mean that True Fans need to be your only customer. It just means you need to deliver an amazing experience for your existing customers and then create opportunities for repeat business.

Ramit Sethi’s products aren’t cheap, but they aren’t $8,000 as well. His top 1,000 customers are buying multiple products.

Apple uses a similar approach, and if you’ve ever come across the ads for a million different Alexa-enabled devices, it looks like Amazon is trying a similar method. If you want to be able to keep generating revenue from your existing customers without running a subscription business model, you need to have products to sell them.

In the case of Apple and Amazon, the more products they sell to a customer, the more valuable each product becomes. This is already pretty well known with Apple, but take a quick look at Amazon’s line of Alexa-related products:

Echo, Echo Look, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Echo Spot, Echo Connect, Fire TV Cube

Amazon is creating Alexa-enabled products that integrate into pretty much every aspect of your life; watching TV, playing music, turning on the lights, checking who’s at the door, and making phone calls.

If you’ve invested in a bunch of Alexa products and set them up around your house, are you really going to switch over to Google Home?

By focusing on True Fans, Amazon creates an opportunity to sell more devices to the same customers and makes it less likely that those customers will switch to a competitor.

Realistically, what if you’re not Amazon? What if you don’t have Apple resources? How then can you get your own True Fans?

Steps to get True Fans

You don’t have the enormous resources of a company like Apple, but there are still things you can do to give additional value to your current customers and obtain additional value in return.

A lot of smaller businesses let a valuable resource go to waste. Even if you don’t have “True Fans” that buy literally everything you create, there are lessons to be learned from the idea of True Fans.

The people most likely to purchase your products are the people who have previously bought from you. If you miss out on targeting and selling to those people, you’re neglecting an enormous opportunity for your business.

Fortunately, once this becomes clear to you, it isn’t all that hard to sell to your existing customers. Below are five ways you can use the concept of True Fans in your business.

1. Deliver special value to True Fans

Your True Fans are different from everyone else. So don’t treat them the same.

When you are able to identify a group of people that are more likely to buy from you (usually your existing customers), it’s easier to keep them around by offering special value. Offerings you don’t give to just anyone.

Ramit Sethi did this not long ago during a launch for one of his new courses. The course, titled Behind the Sales Email, was targeted at online course creators who wanted to sell their courses through emails more efficiently.

Of course, he put his email list through a standard email funnel—but he also put together some additional content just for existing customers.

The content was brief. It was a “behind the scenes” of Behind the Sales Email, showing the thought process that went into each email of the main sales sequence. The content itself? 1-minute long videos, delivered daily, of Ramit speaking into his smartphone.

That’s it!

Exclusive content doesn’t necessarily need to be a huge undertaking. You can bring people behind the scenes or like Grannis does, host private online meetups.

These methods show your most loyal customers that you care about them, as people like to feel like they’re getting something exclusive.

2. Create avenues to continue selling

You can’t get more from your existing customers if you have nothing else to sell them.

In the same vein, you don’t necessarily want to just “sell more products.” Adding products or services to your portfolio takes work, so you want to ensure you offer the type of product that goes well with what you’re already good at.

What products do your customers buy? What does that say about them? What else might that kind of person need?

There are a few different ways you can create more opportunities to sell to your true fans:

Offer a matching product:

What goes well with the major thing you sell? Sell that.

Offer add-ons to your top product:

Accessories and add-ons are an easy way to keep selling.

Add a service to a product:

For example, a course about online business can come with coaching. A piece of technology can come with training.

Add a product to a service:

For instance, a massage therapist might sell massage oil to clients, while a dentist can sell toothbrushes.

If you’re going to identify True Fans, you need to have multiple things for them to buy.

4. Fight to keep customers

In his AMA about e-commerce marketing, Jordan shared another critical point that pertains to True Fans.

“As marketers, we talk a lot about customer acquisition cost. But it’s a lot cheaper to get people to make the second purchase than it is to get people to purchase the first time.

Getting that repeat purchase is really crucial for a business that’s successful in the long term. So I spend a lot of time working on my email and automation to keep business coming from existing customers.”

Getting a customer is a much harder task than keeping a customer. It, however, makes sense to do everything you can to please your current customers, and intervene if it seems like they’re going to leave.

You may even decide to automate this follow-up. Here are a few of the types of winback/loyalty campaigns you may want to consider:

Reward customers who buy a lot: Once a customer has spent a certain amount of money with you, activate an automation. Send them messages with exclusive offers as a reward.

Remind people who haven’t patronized in a while: Has a top customer been quiet for some months? Trigger an automation that activates when a customer hasn’t made a purchase for a while, then follow up and offer them a deal.

Time your follow-up to their need: How long does it take to use a bottle of shampoo? You can anticipate when your customer will require more shampoo or have laptop questions, so you can use an automation to follow up at that exact time.

Engagement tagging automation

When someone becomes disengaged, you can instantly trigger an automation to re-engage them.

Your existing customers are perhaps also your best customers, so do what it takes to keep them around.

5. Have a personality

Customers leave companies for a myriad of reasons. It could be they outgrew your product. They don’t like your service. Or they found a cheaper competitor.

If you compete only on price or benefits, you run the risk of losing customers when a competitor comes along. But this will be difficult if you compete on personality, as this cannot be easily replicated. Your personality is a competitive advantage. No one can copy your personality, and a strong personality can help you attract and keep customers.

Many entrepreneurs and small business marketers are increasingly worried about putting too much of themselves into their marketing. And we understand that fear as you want to appear professional, and sometimes that means not talking about a funny thing your cat did.

Although, anything you can do to let your personality shine through will help you build True Fans. Customers will buy from you because what you offer is valuable. True Fans buy from you because they like you and what you stand for.

So should you aspire for True Fans?

If you take the idea of 1,000 True Fans literally, it’s easy to detect flaws.

Finding 1,000 True Fans is extremely tough. Relying on a small base of support can be risky. Each fan needs to spend a significant amount of money (because you don’t necessarily get $1 for every $1 they spend).

As an idea, though, the concept of True Fans is extremely valuable.

Put aside the exact number of fans, or even the idea that your fans need to be frothing at the mouth for your brand.

Then answer this question yourself: what other value can I offer my existing customers?



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